Great Spock! NeoSpectra-Based Tricorders are (Almost) Here!

Clive Maxfield
|  Created: October 10, 2019  |  Updated: March 16, 2020

The lightweight handheld NeoSpectra-Scanner provides material analysis capability
Image source: Si-Ware Systems

I have a cousin who lives in Canada. We’ll call her Rachel (because that's her name). Rachel is extremely allergic to almost any form of shellfish. The slightest hint of a sniff of a mollusk, crustacean, or echinoderm will leave her gasping frantically for air and grasping feverishly for her EpiPen.

Rachel's allergy is so severe that she cannot consume food that has been prepared in any piece of cookware that has had the remotest contact with shellfish. As a result, she rarely eats outside of the house, unless it's at her husband's restaurant where the chef and staff keep a separate set of pots, pans, crockery, and cutlery just for her.

Who Wouldn't Want a Tricorder?

In the science-fictional Star Trek universe, a tricorder is a multifunction hand-held device used for a wide range of tasks, including environmental scanning and data analysis. Science officer Spock wouldn't be seen outside the house, well, outside the starship USS Enterprise (NCC-1701), without his trusty tricorder.

Imagine if people like Rachel had access to a tricorder-like device. All they would have to do would be to wave it over a plate of food to be alerted as to the presence of shellfish, peanuts, gluten… whatever it was they were hoping to avoid.

Actually, having a tricorder-like device could be of interest to all of us if it could detect pathogens like E. coli, Listeria, Salmonella; similarly, for toxins like botulinum, which is produced by a type of bacterium called Clostridium botulinum (C. botulinum), resulting in the illness we call botulism. If you really want to have a "bad hair" day, take a look the Foodborne Outbreaks page on the CDC (Centers for Disease and Control and Prevention) website. And, as if we didn’t have enough to worry about, there's always the chance that a food preparer or waiter may take a dislike to you and decide to put rat poison in your food.

Introducing NeoSpectra Sensing Solutions 

A company called Si-Ware Systems specializes in creating miniature and low-cost spectral sensors and scanners that can be used in a wide variety of material sensing applications. Their flagship product is the NeoSpectra family of modules that provide compact, low-cost Fourier Transform near infrared (FT-NIR) spectral sensor capabilities. Using cunning algorithms, the sensor data can be analyzed to determine the constituent components (elements, compounds, molecules, etc.) forming the material in question.

The first NeoSpectra modules were the size of "a chunky pack of playing cards," but they've been shrinking rapidly. The most recent incarnation, the NeoSpectra micro, is only 18 mm x 18 mm (excluding the infrared sources and optics). Other companies can take NeoSpectra modules and incorporate them into a wide range of products.

For example, AgroCares uses NeoSpectra modules in its nutrient scanners, which provide data about nutrients in soil, feed, or leaf. Meanwhile, cosmetic behemoth Henkel/Schwartzkopf is deploying NeoSpectra modules in its SalonLab Analyzer, which can measure inner hair condition, moisture level, and true hair color. A host of other potential applications are presented on NeoSpectra's What's Possible page, including the ability to detect and identify counterfeit textiles.

The Future is Closer Than You Think

Recently, Si-Ware Systems introduced its first handheld material analysis scanner with plug-and-play development capability for rapid deployment in the field or on the factory floor. Based on NeoSpectra spectral sensor technology, this market-ready tool for resellers is expected to help drive on-site material analysis into a broad range of industries.

Are you familiar with the Square Magstripe Reader -- that little box you see plugged into people's smartphones that let's them swipe your credit card? I personally don’t think it will be long before some enterprising company creates something similar that allows you to use your smartphone to scan your food to make sure nothing harmful lurks inside your tempting treats.

In the not-so-distant future, I fully expect that we will all be wearing augmented reality (AR) headsets (see also The Artificial Intelligence Apocalypse -- Is It Time to Be Scared Yet? Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3). I believe that, at some stage, these headsets will incorporate a wide variety of technologies, including something like a NeoSpectra-based capability to scan one's food for harmful constituents before you pop it into your mouth.

I mentioned this idea to Scott Smyser of Si-Ware Systems. Not surprisingly, he tried to rein-in my enthusiasm by saying that we are some way from having this level of capability. I asked him if we would be able to do this in say five years' time and he said, "probably not." I then asked if he thought this capability would be available in 100 years' time, and he replied, "almost certainly." So, now we have a range, all we need to do is pin things down. Personally, I believe this type of capability -- AR headsets with the ability to analyze your food and alert you to any problems on the fly -- will become reality within my lifetime. What say you?

About Author

About Author

Clive "Max" Maxfield received his BSc in Control Engineering in 1980 from Sheffield Hallam University, England and began his career as a designer of central processing units (CPUs) for mainframe computers. Over the years, Max has designed everything from silicon chips to circuit boards and from brainwave amplifiers to steampunk Prognostication Engines (don't ask). He has also been at the forefront of Electronic Design Automation (EDA) for more than 30 years.

Well-known throughout the embedded, electronics, semiconductor, and EDA industries, Max has presented papers at numerous technical conferences around the world, including North and South America, Europe, India, China, Korea, and Taiwan. He has given keynote presentations at the PCB West conference in the USA and the FPGA Forum in Norway. He's also been invited to give guest lectures at several universities in the US and at Oslo University in Norway. In 2001, Max "shared the stage" at a conference in Hawaii with former Speaker of the House, "Newt" Gingrich.

Max is the author of a number of books, including Designus Maximus Unleashed (banned in Alabama), Bebop to the Boolean Boogie (An Unconventional Guide to Electronics), EDA: Where Electronics Begins, FPGAs: Instant Access, and How Computers Do Math.

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